Brian Dewan | Words of Wisdom (Eschatone)

cd_dewan.jpgWhile the instrument isn’t known for its complexity or grit, in Dewan’s hands the autoharp turns into a musical Swiss Army Knife, suitable for ballads, stomps and dissonant aural punches.







Folk music is doing strange things these days. Feminists have been using it as political protest for years and artists like Andrew Bird and Sufjan Stevens are taking the genre to experimental, often symphonic ends.

While these modern projects don’t always sound much like traditional folk music, they do tap into its existing angry, political or tragic veins. That’s great, but there is another side of folk music that’s rarely explored, and when it is, artists are typically deemed novelty acts or irrelevant jokesters. That other side is the lighter side.

Even two of the greatest figures in folk music, Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie, played their share of fun and nonsense songs. Even the Anthology of American Folk Music is heavy with whimsical tunes. (One of them, "The Mountaineer’s Courtship" shows up on Words of Wisdom.) The question is: is it fair to laud serious folkies while dismissing the fun ones?

While I like the goofier songs, there’s a reason murder ballads and protest anthems are remembered while others are forgotten, so my answer would be yes. But that was before I heard Words of Wisdom and learned how to have fun with folk music.

This album is the first part of Dewan’s Humanitarium Series. Apparently, it will consist of forgotten songs. Songs that Dewan has found in old books and on ancient 78s. When I first listened to this installment, I realized why theses songs were forgotten. Many of them are cheesy and nonsensical, and Dewan comes off like a B-list kids’ singer by recording them. Underneath, though, there is power in his performance.

The title track starts the album and it speaks to the wisdom in old proverbs. While the song may have originally been written to encourage Christian lifestyles, Dewan’s rendition transforms it to a plea to pay attention to forgotten verses, mostly his.

Throughout the album, hints and nods at small, yet universal truths provide parallels to modern life. "Only a Brakeman" may be about a railroad worker, but it resonates to reflect the feelings of anyone who sees themselves as even slightly useless. On many songs, the novelty is just a façade. These tunes may have been forgotten, but when reexamined in modern times, they gain new lives and deeper meaning.

The music is subversive, too. Dewan is credited on They Might Be Giants’ album Lincoln, but only for designing the cover art. Regardless of his sonic involvement to the project, the musical styling rubbed off on Dewan. Ditching TMBG’s electronic elements, Dewan’s weapon of choice is the autoharp, perhaps more commonly known as the weird looking thing the Lovin’ Spoonful played. While the instrument isn’t known for its complexity or grit, in Dewan’s hands the autoharp turns into a musical Swiss Army Knife, suitable for ballads, stomps and dissonant aural punches. This is most notable on "The Civil War," a song about a town divided over a trivial municipal squabble. On that song, the autoharp provides a pleasant, melodic backbone for the verses, but when the chorus kicks in, the sound distorts and rings, producing a noisy, yet oddly beautiful sound.

The final track on Words of Wisdom is the folk standard "I Cannot Sing the Old Songs," a song about the previous generation’s music being too dear to the narrator. Even though all of the 16 songs on this album are covers, and even though Dewan seems trapped in the pre-rock ‘n’ roll 1950s, the song rings true. Dewan isn’t singing the old songs, he’s rewriting them. A- | Gabe Bullard

RIYL: They Might Be Giants, Woody Guthrie, Dave Van Ronk

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